Grad Students File For Union Recognition

Paul Bass PhotoWhile preparing to lead a class on democracy in India this semester, Hari Ramesh took time out to join his fellow graduate students Monday in seeking to bring democracy to New Haven.

Newly minted as official “workers” under the law, Ramesh and other graduate students who teach undergraduate courses in 10 Yale departments formally signed authorization cards seeking union recognition filed Monday with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

They seek to have UNITE HERE Local 33 recognized as their union to bargain on their behalf with the university. Eight hundred graduate students study and teach in those 10 departments, said Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg.

The filing follows last week’s NLRB ruling that graduate- student teachers at Columbia — and therefore in general at private universities — are considered both students and teachers under the law. Yale has refused to negotiate with organizers under the argument that they’re students, not workers. The university has also argued that a union would spoil the mentor-mentee relationship between students and faculty and jeopardize classroom free speech, arguments that the NLRB decision dismissed as contrary to the findings of independent research. (You can download the full decision at this page.)

“It made things feel more possible,” Ramesh, a Boston-born fourth-year political science PhD student who studies the history of democracy in India and the U.S., said of the NLRB ruling, which overturned an earlier ruling concerning organizing at Brown University.

Yale’s graduate students have been trying since 1990 in conjunction with UNITE HERE (the parent union of Yale’s pink-collar and blue-collar Locals 34 and 35) to unionize. The NLRB ruling is seen as a boost to similar campaigns nationwide.

“Our members who clean Yale’s classrooms have a say in their working conditions,” a UNITE HERE release quoted Local 35 President Bob Proto as saying. “It’s past time for the people who teach in those classrooms to have a voice too.”

“We are ready to sit down and negotiate a fair and collegial process. They know where we are. They have not approached us” yet, Greenberg said in an interview.

Asked for a response Monday to the filing, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy replied: “We think it’s better for all the students to have a say on the issue.”

“Yale continues to disagree with the NLRB decision and does not support a graduate student union,” Conroy added. “GESO seeking an election among a subset of graduate students does not change the university’s longstanding viewpoint.”

Monday’s petition was submitted by student teachers in the following Yale departments: Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, and Sociology. Greenberg said between 75 and 100 percent of the graduate students in each of those departments are Local 33 members.

In the past, Yale and the Local 33 organizers (formerly under the banner of GESO, or Graduate Employees and Students Organization,) have disagreed over which departments to include in any potential unionizing election. Yale has pushed to include a wider array of departments, including those with less pro-union sentiment. At one point GESO held a mock election in which it chose the participating departments; a majority of those voting cast ballots against unionization.

Greenberg Monday cited precedents — a 2011 NLRB in the Specialty Healthcare case, and U.S. Court of Appeals decisions in a series of cases including FedEx Freight, Inc. — supporting a “department-by-department” approach to establishing a bargaining unit in the smallest rather than broadest scope.

Turning Point?

Leading politicians statewide, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (shown making a pro-GESO speech at a 2014 rally), have embraced the Yale graduate student organizing drive. On campus, the drive has also met some resistance on the left. A group of “women, LGBTQ graduate students, and graduate students of color at Yale University” released this letter earlier this year that expressed sympathy with the drive’s goals but criticizing “troubling behaviors we see encouraged by union leadership and practiced across the organization.”

Mayor Toni Harp Monday predicted the NLRB decision will help union organizers and Yale to find common ground on rules for proceeding with an election.

“Over the years I’ve heard Yale said if the NLRB basically sees [graduate student employees] as workers — which is different than the university sees them —then they recognize that a union can be formed. My sense is they have been negotiating around what neutrality will look like” in an organizing campaign,” Harp said on WNHH radio’s “Mayor Monday” program. “They’re trying to come up with language to define what that neutrality means.”

Monday’s filing came as no surprise to one labor expert, Kate Bronfenbrenner. She predicted that in the wake of the NLRB ruling, more private universities besides just New York University will see graduate student unions, following in the footsteps of public universities. Cornell Unviersity, where Bronfenbrenner is director of labor research, agreed this summer to a card-count neutrality agreement for a graduate student organizing drive. That means the school will recognize the union if a majority of affected graduate-student teachers sign membership cards.

“I think it’s going to happen,” Bronfenbrenner said of the prospects of a successful Yale drive. She predicted similar victories at Harvard and Brown. In general, she predicted the first wave of union victories will occur at campuses in cities, with more students of color and more community support.

“Yale has been a long, long fight. Yale dug in its heels. Yale has done everything possible to not want to recognize the union. But their excuse was always that they couldn’t —  it was against the law. And now that excuse is gone [with the NLRB ruling]. The playing field has changed. That means that all the pressure on the Yale board, all the pressure from the Yale community, all the pressure external to Yale, changes.”

From Gandhi To New Haven

Aliyya Swaby PhotoYale graduate students have cited a range of concerns they seek to address through a union contract and negotiations with the administration. The concerns include reduced pay for seventh- and eighth-year PhD student teachers; access to mental health and other health services; the composition of the faculty and undergraduate curriculum; and affordable child care. “We have some members who pay more than half their monthly income for child care, because Yale offers no child care,” Aaron Greenberg said. “People are being punished for being parents.” (The second half of this previous story features interviews with graduate-student teachers about their reasons for supporting the organizing drive.)

Hari Ramesh noted that eight of 11 faculty members in South Asian Studies whom Yale hired from 2006 to 2014 have either left the university or are planning to. He praised the faculty members with whom he works in the political science department; he sees “less institutional support” in South Asian Studies. He criticized “Yale’s long tenure clock,” with too many “people being denied promotion.”

Ramesh, who is 27 years old, said he received a $28,500 annual stipend to study at Yale. This semester he will teach two 15-student undergraduate sections of a course on Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and nonviolent politics. He serves as a member of Local 33’s elected coordinating committee.

“Democracy operates in a number of different spaces” in society, including elections, but not only in elections, he observed. In coming months he will not only teach about that, but learn more about how it works firsthand.

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posted by: AverageTaxpayer on August 29, 2016  7:33pm

This is great! Once Local 33 gets fully recognized, the Yale Unions will then have the power to effectively shut down classes!

What we learned from the last strike was that Yale could get in the short term without Locals 34 & 35.

But without Local 33, the University ceases functioning. (Might as well send the students home.)

Everyone talks about how great it is to work at Yale. But if you get past the pay & benefits, and union protections, they just aren’t that great, particularly when compared with the municipal unions.

Power to the people!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 29, 2016  8:22pm

A friend of mine in New York who is a doctor told me that some of the Doctors that work for Yale Hospital have ask the union that the doctors in New York belong to that there union come and help them form a union at Yale Hospital for the doctors.


posted by: 1644 on August 30, 2016  8:06am

Why are people still in grad school after 8 years?  Because they have chosen fields with poor employment prospects.  The real problem is just touched on here: schools have replaced ladder positions with cheap adjuncts, yet they continue to add to the supply of PhDs.  There is a massive oversupply of PhDs, particularly in the humanities.  What would be the effect of a strike?  Large lecture courses would lose discussion sections and labs, and some seminars taught by grad students would be lost.  The labs are really critical to many of the sciences courses, but those grad students don’t seem to be so pro-union as that actually have job projects when they graduate.  The quality of some large humanities courses would be diminished, and Yale might need to limit their size so students had some prospect of access to the profs.  On the other hand, if profs no longer needed to advise and supervise grad students, the profs would have a little more time for undergrads.

posted by: Renewhavener on August 30, 2016  8:43am


An NLRB ruling is no more a settled matter of law than a Paul Bass penned article by the way.  Until they display true objectivity they will remain, sadly, and activist extension of whichever administration is seated at that moment.  Naturally, their dubious rulings will continue to lend cannon fodder to legitimate halls of adjudication from coast to coast.

Besides a ruling to isolate private primarily self funded institutions and shield public institutions primarily tax funded institutions is naked prejudicial and unjustified.

Moreover, this coming on the heals of their unwillingness to even hear, let alone consider, the Northwestern Athletes petition, smacks of official cowardice.  The NLRB apparently lacks the guts to go toe to toe with a consortium like the NCAA, but is willing to weigh in on private universities in isolation:

Hard to differentiate for the fundamental nature of elective toil in the lab or lecture hall from elective toil in the gym or field of play.

Separately, “We have some members who pay more than half their monthly income for child care, because Yale offers no child care,” Aaron Greenberg said. “People are being punished for being parents.”

Parenthood, like graduate teaching and research (or competitive collegiate athletics ftm), is ultimately a choice, right?  Ever heard of abstinence Aaron?

posted by: robn on August 30, 2016  11:14am

So let’s add this up. 2 seminars which is a total class time of 5 hours per week (plus prep plus grading so to be really conservative, quadruple it to 20 hours per week)...For that half week, 3/4 of the year, one is compensated $28,000 per year, which extrapolates out to a full time salary of $75,000, plus free tuition which (for undergrads) is a $46,000 value, plus gold plated health benefits which in CT are worth $9,000 for a family of three. This totals $130,000 which is far more than I and most people I know make per year.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 30, 2016  1:07pm

posted by: robn on August 30, 2016 12:14pm

This totals $130,000 which is far more than I and most people I know make per year.

So form a union to fight for the same benefits.

posted by: robn on August 30, 2016  1:59pm


As usual you miss the point. The point is that these students have nothing to complain about. If you don’t like the terms, don’t sign the contract.

posted by: Renewhavener on August 30, 2016  2:34pm

Unmentioned of course is the greater marginal future earnings gleaned in large measure from the Yale reputation attached to their credential.  Which, by definition, is portable.

Fact is they are sacrificing in the present for greater potential benefits in the future. These are including but not limited to greater than average intellectual and time freedoms, compensation, notoriety, etc.

My sympathies for this cohort, their so called cause, and their might-makes-right methods are nil.

posted by: 1644 on August 30, 2016  2:40pm

Yale has just announced an affirmative action program to recruit natives of Loompaland for graduate studies in the humanities.  Yale denies that it has any intention to use Oompa Loompas as strikebreakers.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 30, 2016  4:41pm

posted by: robn on August 30, 2016 2:59pm


As usual you miss the point. The point is that these students have nothing to complain about. If you don’t like the terms, don’t sign the contract.

I did not miss the point.My point is you union haters always complain about union workers wages and benefits.My point is form a union if you want the same benefits.What is stoping you from forming a union.When i got out out high school in 1971 I went to work in the private sector on wall street. I worked for the crooked Drexel Burnham Lambert   which was forced into bankruptcy in February 1990 due to its involvement in illegal activities in the junk bond market, driven by Drexel employee Michael Milken. I used to see Michael Milken.walking around the hallways of Drexel Burnham Lambert. I spoke to friends of mine who work for the public sector. I saw the money and benefits they made.So in 1974 I left crooked Drexel Burnham Lambert and went to work for the state of New York.This is not about don’t sign the contract.It is about wages and benefits.

My bad I forgot Michael Milken now runs taxpayer-funded online charter schools.

The Convict Who Stole Public Education—Milken’s Online Learning Cash Cow

And the workers have no union.

posted by: TheMadcap on August 30, 2016  7:33pm

Their totals are not $130k a year and its an ridiculous to say that ad you’re ever so casually glancing over the amount of work graduate students at Yale must do

posted by: robn on August 30, 2016  8:59pm


Sorry but counter calling BS on you. I quadrupled their class time and accounted for summers off and the economic value is simple math. (As is tuition or else there would be no value would there?) When they’re not working they’re studying and that’s their obligation. When they’re doing neither that’s time off and that’s elective.

posted by: wendy1 on August 31, 2016  7:55am

Workers need unions to protect them.  Yale,where greed is their creed and money is their god,  will continue to fight and so should 33.  Citizens like me are happy to join with them in the fight.  If you dont believe in the power of good strong unions, read Whose Side Are We On? by Tom Geoghan, a labor lawyer.

We have an obscene rich/poor gap here and one reason is that conservatives killed unions in this country.

posted by: 1644 on August 31, 2016  9:11am

Madcap:  What work is Ramesh doing?  He is leading two discussion sections for a SSAT 440a, a course taught by Assoc. Prof. of Poli. Sci. Karuna Matena.  What does this involve?  The actual sections are likely an hour each, so two hours there.  He should have office hours to make himself available to undergrads, who may or may not come for advice.  If none come, he can pursue his own research in that time.  He should attend Matena’s lectures and read the assigned reading.  He will meet with Prof. Matena and other TA’s to give feedback on the course and get guidance on running discussion sections. At the mid-term and the end of the semester, he will need to grade exams, and possibly some papers as well, all under the guidance of Prof Matena.  Is all of this work?  Or is it study and training in his chosen field?  Or is it, as Yale says,a mix, without bright lines. Even if it is all work, it seems Robn’s estimate of 20 hours per week is generous.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on August 31, 2016  9:56am

“The point is that these students have nothing to complain about.”

Complaining is not the only reason to have a union.  A union can resist future changes in conditions that might harm students.  A union can intervene and support individual students who are harassed or discriminated against or dismissed unfairly.  A union can work to ensure that safety regulations like OSHA are followed in labs without cutting any corners.  And a grad student union can support Yale’s other unions, who may have more legitimate complaints. 

However, some commenters here might misunderstand Yale’s generous stipend structure.  Funded graduate students receive a tuition waiver**, health insurance, and a stipend of 20-something thousand dollars, whether they assist in a class or not. This is very different from a state university where students are paid specifically for teaching, no assignment = no funding.  The stipend’s purpose is to allow students to work hard on studies rather than pick up a side job to make ends meet.  We then get a small additional stipend for teaching, depending on how many hours the teaching assignment is expected to take (works out to about $18/hour). 

Truly nothing to complain about, but a union is still a good idea. 

**The tuition is kind of a red herring because after the first year or two, grad students take no classes.

posted by: TheMadcap on August 31, 2016  4:11pm

Yes, theyre studying, thatsnthe point. This isnt SCSU, its Yale, Yale pays its graduate students to study specifically because its highly vigorous, these people are expected to perform ample top of the field research for the university on top of any teaching and tutoring.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on September 1, 2016  9:59am


That article you referenced from the LGBTQ community to GESO and UniteHere is fascinating. Have you covered this?

There are many that support and want to further support the labor movement but have been intimidated or harassed by the tactics of local organizers.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on September 1, 2016  11:14am

Ben, thanks for highlighting that link.  My experience with GESO organizers matches that of the authors, including creepy ambush off-campus.

posted by: BevHills730 on September 3, 2016  8:44pm

So great to see this campaign advancing! I have heard that this is America’s longest recognition campaign.  It is just incredible how hard Yale has fought against allowing for an election.  I actually don’t think one can be authentically supportive of the labor movement and not supportive of this campaign.  This campaign just epitomizes so many of the challenges that the labor movement faces and the tenacity that it takes to win in just an anti-union environment that the United States has become.